Robert Altman’s Lost Classics Finally on Blu-ray


gravy, can it really be true? Has it really been nine years since the passing
of Robert Altman, one of the best and most idiosyncratic of all American
filmmakers? Nine years since the release of one of those films that, depending
on one’s point of view, amused, outraged, inspired or perplexed audiences and
critics alike—all at once, in many cases?
Nine years since the time when one could purchase a ticket for his latest work
and feel confident that, regardless of whether it was “good” or
“bad,” they were about to experience a genuinely singular cinematic
experience? On the one hand, it doesn’t feel that long because the films
themselves are so vibrant and alive (and often ahead of their times) that they still
feel more fresh and vital than most current movies. On the other, the absence
of that vitality can be felt more and more with each passing year, as even the
more artistically inclined films have begun to fall into a depressingly rigid
lockstep that even his dopiest efforts usually managed to avoid—he may have made the occasional bad movie but he almost
never made a boring one.

Whether a
conscious effort to mark the anniversary of his passing or the result of the
kind of unconscious cosmic synergy that often cropped up in his work, a number
of Altman’s films are making their long-awaited Blu-ray debuts—Kino Lorber is issuing “The Long
Goodbye” (1973), “Thieves Like
Us” (1974) and “Buffalo Bill
& the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson” (1976), while
Olive Films is offering up “Come Back to
the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” (1982). On the surface, none
of these films may have the immediate cachet of such better-known Altman titles
as “MASH” (1970), “Nashville” (1975) or “The
Player” (1992), but in terms of style, character and iconoclastic charm,
they are all more than worthy works from one of the all-time great filmmakers
and they all play just as well today as they did when they first came out—even better in some cases. Put it this way—having seen the vast majority of this year’s Oscar derby
competitors at this point, I would cheerfully rank all four of these titles
above the vast majority of the current awards competition without even the
slightest hesitation.

Based on
the 1953 novel by Raymond Chandler featuring his beloved hard-boiled detective
character Philip Marlowe, “The Long Goodbye” found Altman taking a
stab at the private eye genre but anyone looking at it for a standard-issue
whodunnit is likely to be as perplexed as those who went into “McCabe
& Mrs. Miller” expecting a typical western. Instead of the tough,
laconic version of Marlowe embodied by the likes of Humphrey Bogart, this
version presented viewers with Elliott Gould as a constantly muttering goof
who helps an old friend cross the border into Tijuana, learns that the
now-vanished friend has been accused of murdering his wife, and attempts to get
to the bottom of what really happened in an investigation that finds him
crossing paths with an angry gangster (Mark Rydell), a quack doctor (Henry
Gibson), a drunken author (Sterling Hayden) and the author’s beautiful blonde
wife (Nina Van Pallandt). Throughout his shambling inquiries, Marlowe is
treated with disdain by practically everyone he encounters—even his pet cat
runs out on him when he commits the unpardonable sin of not purchasing the
right food—but what they fail to recognize is that, unlike most members of the
Me Generation, he has a certain personal code that still
upholds such outdated notions as friendship and loyalty, and woe to anyone who
violates it.

the screenplay to “The Long Goodbye” (penned by Leigh Brackett, who
previously co-wrote the classic “The Big Sleep”) is as solidly
constructed as one could hope, Altman uses it as a springboard for a
one-of-a-kind narrative that pokes fun at the private eye genre without
completely crossing the line into outright parody, while maintaining a serious
undertone that only becomes fully evident when it is all over and one finally
realizes that this Marlowe is not to be trifled with. Although Gould may not be anyone’s immediate
idea of Philip Marlowe, his out-of-place nature underscores the notion that the
character and the ideals that he once represented are themselves now out of
step in a era of drugs, free love and self-improvement. The film also contains
two of the most jarring moments of Altman’s entire career—one in which the
gangster (whose minions include a then-unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger) shatters
a Coke bottle against the face of his girlfriend in order to prove his
seriousness to Marlowe, and the finale in which Marlowe faces
the ultimate betrayal and responds in kind.

Needless to say, this was considerably
different from what most fans of Chandler were expecting and, as would prove to
be the case a few years later when he subverted long-held notions of an equally
iconic character in his screen adaptation of “Popeye,” the film
outraged many viewers and critics at the time. As it turned out, also like
“Popeye,” his idiosyncratic approach would wind up gaining enormous
favor in subsequent years to a point where “The Long Goodbye” is now
often cited as one of his great works. It would also prove to be one of the
more influential ones as well. The shaggy dog approach to the storyline and the
collection of colorful characters, each of whom could plausibly inspire their
own film, would prove to be a key influence on the Coen Brothers when they made
their own riff on the genre in the cult favorite “The Big Lebowski.”
More recently, while Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant “Inherent Vice”
is, first and foremost, a highly effective adaptation of the singular prose
stylings of Thomas Pynchon, traces of “The Long Goodbye” can be found
in its DNA.

Based on
the Edward Anderson novel that would inspire the Nicholas Ray film “They
Live By Night” (1949), “Thieves Like Us” is a Depression-era
crime drama/lovers-on-the-run saga that begins with three convicts—Bowie
(Keith Carradine), T-Dub (Bert Remsen) and Chicamaw (John Schuck)—escaping
from prison and executing a series of robberies while holed up in a farmhouse
along with Dee Mobley (Tom Skerrit) and the naive, Coke-swilling romantic
Keechie (Shelley Duvall). After one robbery goes violently wrong, the group
splits up, but when Bowie is injured in a car accident, he returns to the
farmhouse and is nursed back to health by Keechie. During his convalescence,
Bowie and Keechie fall in love and idly speculate about somehow making a life
for themselves free of crime. It isn’t to be, of course, and after half-hearted
stabs at loyalty (springing Chicamaw from jail) and morality (cutting Chicamaw
loose rather than get sucked back into his old life), Bowie meets his
inevitable fate.

amidst a flurry of activity from Altman that would culminate the next year with
the arrival of “Nashville,” “Thieves Like Us” is one of
those titles that has always tended to get lost in the shuffle, and while it may
be one of his smaller films in that it does not contain the sprawling
narratives or cast of his more expansive works, it is nevertheless fairly epic
on an emotional scale. Rather than focus on the criminal activities and their
violent aftermaths in the manner of the superficially similar “Bonnie
& Clyde” (whose infamously choreographed scenes of bloodshed are
diametrically opposite to the short and brief bursts of brutality displayed
here), Altman is more interested in presenting viewers with a character piece
centered around the short, sweet and ultimately doomed relationship between
Bowie and Keetchie that is aided greatly by the touching performances from
Carradine and Duvall.

At the
same time, the film also serves as an intriguing look at male aggression and
its ultimate failings, a theme that would crop up in many of his films over the
year—the men may have the guns and the booze and the bluster but they are
little more than slaves to their own desires while it is the women, especially
T-Dub’s in-law Mattie (Louise Fletcher) that ultimately prove to be smarter and
more capable at doing what it takes to survive. Another nice and occasionally
ironic touch comes from Altman’s decision to eschew a traditional score in
order to set all the action to what is playing on the radio, anything from
music to old radio programs that inevitably wind up commenting on the action.
(During a romantic interlude between the two lovers, a production of
“Romeo & Juliet” can be heard in the background.) “Thieves
Like Us” may lack the galvanizing effect of some of Altman’s better-known
films but in its own quietly moving way, it is as powerful as anything that he
ever did and is a film ripe for rediscovery.

In the
wake of the success of his next film, “Nashville,” all eyes were on
Altman to see what he would come up with next and as a result, it was perhaps
inevitable that this followup, “Buffalo Bill & the Indians, or Sitting
Bull’s History Lesson,” would prove to be arguably his highest-profile
flop to date. On paper, it all sounded so promising—loosely adapted from
Arthur Kopit’s play “Indians” by key Altman collaborator Alan
Rudolph, the film was a savagely satirical revisionist western in which Buffalo
Bill Cody (Paul Newman), now running a ramshackle revue that purports to tell
the “real” story of how the west was won, scores what he thinks is an
enormous publicity coup by hiring no less of a figure than Sitting Bull (Frank
Kaquitts), the defeater of Custer himself, to appear. Much to his frustration,
his new attraction fails to live up to the racist cliches about the savage
Indians that his show has continued to perpetrate—this Sitting Bull is, unlike
Cody, quiet, decent and morally correct in all regards as he silently observes
the perversions of the historical record that the show is based upon. Things
come to a head when Sitting Bull, through his emissary (Will Sampson), not only
refuses to participate in Cody’s take on Custer’s defeat (the result of a
cowardly sneak attack) but insists that the show perform a recreation of a U.S.
military massacre on a peaceful Sioux village—Cody angrily fires him in
response but then finds himself in a bind when the show’s star attraction,
Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin), sides with Sitting Bull and refuses to
perform as well.

It is
generally assumed that since the film happened to be released at the height of
Bicentennial fever during the summer of 1976, the dark and cynical satire that
it trafficked in instead of the patriotic romp promised by the ads no doubt
contributed to its commercial and critical failure (which also led to a
falling-out with producer Dino De Laurentiis that cost Altman the chance to
make his long-cherished adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel
“Ragtime”—by blending the historical and the fictional together as
he did here, Altman almost appeared to be using “Buffalo Bill” as a test
run for ideas to use for that never-to-be project). This is perhaps not too
surprising, but what is odd is that people have not gone back in subsequent
years to take another look at it because, stripped of the ridiculous
expectations that accompanied its original release, the film is both enormously
entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure. Instead of simply making
fun of America, as was the charge at the time, Altman is instead drawing
fascinating parallels between American history and showbiz history and how both
are perfectly willing to massage, revise or outright stretch the truth in order
to tell a better story. (If one reads
Bill’s revue as a form of Hollywood before the existence of Hollywood, then the
film would make for a fascinating double-bill with his equally dark showbiz
satire “The Player.”)

This is never funnier nor sadder than in the
case of Cody himself, a legitimate war hero who, as seen here, became so
obsessed with burnishing his own legend by the most questionable of means that
not even he was able to distinguish the truth from the horseshit that he
cheerfully slings to the masses. This is beautifully conveyed through Newman’s
wonderful performance, one of the most underrated of his career in the way that
he depicts Cody with all the charm and bluster one could hope for along with a
subtle undercurrent that quietly suggests that even he recognizes that behind the
elaborate facade is a guy who drinks too much, can no longer shoot straight and
is forced to wear a wig in public to keep up appearances regarding his
virility. In a perverse way, he even admires Sitting Bull for maintaining the
authenticity that he threw away long ago for fame and glory. Frankly, this is
more interesting than any bicentennial snarking that would have become dated a
few months after its release—its notions are as timely and relevant as ever
and as a result, the film as whole has a freshness and vitality to it that is
both surprising and surprisingly engaging.

After a
few years of commercial non-starters that culminated with his
still-controversial adaption of “Popeye,” which was criticized for
being weird, taking too many liberties with the material and not making as much
money at the box-office as “Star Wars” or “Superman,”
Hollywood decided that it had no more use for a maverick fiilmmaker like
Altman. Coincidentally, Altman felt pretty much the same way, but, instead of
simply licking his wounds, he went off into a wholly unexpected area by
spending the next few years filming a series of low-budget adaptations of stage
plays. This period kicked off with the last film covered here, “Come Back
to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” Ed Graczyk’s play about a
group of women from a small Texas town united by their adoration for James Dean
whose reunion twenty years after his death exposes any number of secrets and
resentments that have built up over that time. Having staged the play in New York
with a cast made up of familiar faces (Sandy Dennis and Karen Black), relative
unknowns (Kathy Bates) and one major wild card in pop icon Cher making her
dramatic debut.

Truth be
told, the screenplay (adapted by Graczyk himself) is perhaps the least
interesting aspect of the enterprise—it is a little too gimmicky in certain
places and some of the shocking revelations are anything but. However, what
makes it work is the way that Altman translates the material from the stage to
the screen in a way that honors its stage origins while still making it into a
true cinematic experience. Having worked with such broad canvases over the
previous decade, he nevertheless showed a surprising facility for working on a
more intimate scale without overwhelming the material. The film also allows him
to deal with one of his favorite subjects—women. Over the years, Altman has
always shown a fascination for dealing with women and the things they do to
cope and survive on a daily basis and while his matter-of-fact depiction of the
cruelties they sometimes face has occasionally led to charges of misogyny, his
work, especially here, gives lie to that particular accusation. Working with an
all-female cast (save for Mark Patton), he gives them all chances to shine and
they all tear gleefully into the material and the chance to play characters
instead of appendages. As for whatever intuition led him to cast Cher, a move
that inspired no small amount of derision when it was announced, it was an
inspired move because she delivers a strong performance that is utterly free of
the camp persona she had developed over the previous decade and which
single-handedly launched her career as a serious actress.

The four Blu-rays contain some special features
but how special they are will vary from person to person. The three Kino Lorber
discs were licensed from MGM, who put them out on DVD, and they have ported
over the extras from those releases without adding anything new to the picture
beyond the HD transfers. While the lack of new stuff is a bit of a bummer, the
old stuff is pretty good—”The Long Goodbye” features an interview
with Altman and Gould about the project and another interview with famed
cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond in which he discusses the unique approach that he
took in shooting the film, which is also the subject of a reprinted
“American Cinematographer” article from 1973. “Thieves Like
Us” contain a full commentary track with Altman that is a fascinating
listen. “Buffalo Bill,” alas, has nothing to show for it beyond a trailer.
As for “Jimmy Dean,” which is making its DVD/Blu-ray debut after
years in the home video wilderness, it contains an interview with Graczyk in
which he talks about working with Altman and the odd journey that his play took
on its way to the stage and screen. However, these are films that hardly need a
bunch of flashy extras to help further one’s appreciation of them—a simple
spin of the movies themselves will not only do that but will presumably inspire
viewers to watch (or hopefully rewatch) the works of one of the all-time



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